Much like last year, the New York Red Bulls are starting the season poorly. As a D.C. United fan, it’s been fun to watch just how similarly things have gone. Once again, Jesse Marsch is trying to implement a 4222, and once again it’s failing. New attacking acquisitions (last year, Gonzalo Veron was new-ish; this year, Frederik Gulbrandsen was signed on loan just before the season started) aren’t panning out.
However, last Sunday, the Red Bulls reverted back to a far more familiar 4231 look. It didn’t exactly work, as Orlando City beat them 1-0 despite playing without Kaka, starting a new signing at right back, changing formation themselves, and having to make a 17th minute substitution.
Still, it’s a look that helps their stars. Sacha Kljestan is better in the middle than playing a right-center or left-center attacking midfield role, and Bradley Wright-Phillips seems more comfortable as a lone forward than he’s ever looked with any of the partners the Red Bulls have signed. They’re probably not going to suddenly get into high gear, but this does make them a more formidable opponent for the Black-and-Red.
Here’s their likely lineup:
Red Bulls fans will tell you that Robles has been as good as ever, but they’re incorrect. He’s made some big saves from open play, but he bears a lot of responsibility for Orlando’s goal last week, and he was also beaten by a Cubo Torres free kick that was almost down the middle. United needs to make these set piece woes come to the fore, because NYRB is extraordinarily difficult to shut out at home.
At right back, Marsch has to choose between two flawed options. Sal Zizzo does well enough going forward, but still has the kind of decision-making process that you’d associate with a winger filling in due to a rash of injuries (which is how he was moved there in the first place). Connor Lade, on the other hand, has been something of a punching bag for United over the years, and is coming off of a rib injury. Either way, look for D.C. to try to push the ball towards this flank often.
In central defense, the two more recognizable names are veteran French defenders Aurelien Collin and Damien Perrinelle, but they’re battling for just one spot. With Collin perhaps hitting the wall physically despite being just 31, and both players suffering nagging injuries that have required substitutions this year, it’s a real issue for the Red Bulls no matter who plays. Their high-press approach asks a lot of their center backs, and these two have both been exposed a bit in 2017.
Partnering whichever one starts (which might just come down to who is the least injured) is Aaron Long, a success story for the league-wide move towards having an in-house USL affiliate. Long was a midfielder in college, and was drafted fairly late by Portland, who sent him down to Timbers 2, then cut him. NYRB picked him up for their own B team, and now he’s coming off of a 2016 USL Defender of the Year season. All that said, he has looked like a merely adequate MLS center back at this point, and United should be able to find some room up the middle.
At left back, Kemar Lawrence has been more or less okay this season without necessarily standing out. The player who drew real interest from English clubs in 2015 hasn’t really reappeared, but it can be argued that the speedy Lawrence has been NYRB’s best defender thus far in 2017. As always, he’ll get forward to help add width to the attack.
Dax McCarty’s surprise move to Chicago has been a major issue for the Red Bulls. While Sean Davis did a pretty good job covering for him last summer, that was when the Red Bulls were a well-oiled machine. In March, with the team struggling to get into gear, Davis was unimpressive, and has given way to teenager Tyler Adams.
Adams, a regular for the US under-20 team, has immense potential but still looks raw right now. He’s a hard-working ball-winner, but that approach has seen other teams able to draw him out of good positions and towards chasing lost causes. If United gets him running around without a plan, they’re going to be able to get after the center backs.
Losing McCarty has also forced Felipe to move out of his best position, as a linking #8, and into the #6 role. While he’s done his best to shield the back four, his agitation with his youthful midfield partners has shown through. As always with Felipe, United needs to be careful about his attempts to provoke a reaction with cheap shots, faking injuries, diving, and every other immoral thing you can think of. The guy remains a dirtbag, but despite everyone knowing it, referees still fall for his antics.
Daniel Royer can play on either flank, and is a sure thing to get a start tonight. The Austrian never stops working for his teammates, and has a knack for getting onto loose balls and winning headers in the area. While he’s not necessarily going to generate a lot of scoring chances through his own creativity, his engine means he’s often involved when the Red Bulls are getting looks.
Royer’s position will depend on which player Marsch chooses to start opposite him. Georgetown product Alex Muyl was preferred last year, but a facial injury suffered in the preseason may have set him back in terms of sharpness. If Muyl plays, his main asset is that he will relentlessly pressure anyone on the left side. He’s not the most talented player, but he wins plenty of turnovers and does a ton of sacrificial work for NYRB’s more skilled attackers.
The other option - and the more probable starter - is Derrick Etienne. The Haitian international and homegrown player seems to be a bit of a tweener, and has played more as a forward this season. Undoubtedly gifted from a technical perspective, Etienne’s issue has been putting that towards a final product. Still, he has decent speed, and compared to the somewhat redundant possibility of playing Royer and Muyl, he gives the Red Bulls a more balanced attacking approach.
Kljestan is still at the heart of everything the Red Bulls do going forward. He’s vital to their pressure, his passing range opens the field up for them, and his combinations in zone 14 are the top source for BWP’s scoring opportunities. Regardless of whether Marcelo Sarvas returns as a starter, or if Jared Jeffrey retains his spot, Kljestan is a big challenge for United.
Wright-Phillips remains one of the best goalscorers in MLS, and playing a lone forward role suits his approach better than the 4222 did. BWP has troubled United since arriving in MLS, and it’s not down to any special athletic gifts. He’s not that fast, or strong, or tall. Wright-Phillips makes his bones by being outstanding off the ball, drifting away from defenders until they forget where he is. Throw in his clinical finishing ability, and he’s a bit like dealing with David Villa as opposed to the physical strikers (Dom Dwyer, CJ Sapong) United may be more comfortable against.
Off the bench, Muyl or Etienne will likely be the first sub to come in. The 4222 is not off the table, particularly if the Red Bulls are losing. In that instance, don’t be surprised if Kljestan moves back alongside Felipe, and Etienne moves up to partner Wright-Phillips (making room for Muyl/Etienne in one of the attacking midfield roles). Gulbrandsen, a Norwegian international, could also come in to partner Wright-Phillips in that sort of situation. Veron and Mike Grella are both out injured, leaving the Red Bulls short on attacking depth.